I've been massively looking forward to running Hell Runner's 10-12 mile long Hell Down South - it's felt like my comeback event. In actual fact it's only been three weeks since my last event, but by this summer's standard that's quite a long gap!
|After being damned, we were ready to get on our way|
Unfortunately I have managed to fill those three weeks with a bad-ass cold and working weekends inside soulless exhibition centres, with a terrible diet. So it certainly doesn't feel like I'm coming back stronger than ever (as I had hoped).
Although I was a little apprehensive about my fitness, I was thinking that Hell Runner would ease me back in gently. I have no idea why I thought that! Even if my interview with the organisers wasn't enough of a warning, the major clue was in the name Hell Runner... I wasn't quite prepared for what was in store.
As I drove into Longmoor Military Camp in Hampshire on Sunday morning, it was great to see a buzzing car park. From the word go it was apparent that this was a very well established event with a loyal following. I don't know why I haven't taken part before - they've been going for 8 years!
By the time I'd done my usual faffing, I hadn't left myself much time to reach to the start line, get comfortable and focus the mind. But I still managed to wriggle myself towards the front of the pack. After an appearance from a 10 foot tall devil character, the gun was sounded and we were on our way.
|Trying to focus the mind|
We set off along a gravel track at quite a pace. Within a hundred yards or so, once I'd found myself a bit of space, I tried to bring myself down to a sensible running rhythm. At that point I was overtaken by a fair amount of runners who were still going full-pelt. Surely they were going to burn out, I thought? Well, I'm not sure whether they did, as I didn't passed them again. There were definitely a few very nifty runners out there!
I guess a real benefit of larger races is that you'll always be in good company. There are some serious runners and some total beginners and you'll never feel like you're the best or the worst, unless you come first or last I guess... but for the other 2,998 of us we were having fun sharing the experience with people of a similar standard. It's not really about positions or times with something like this, it's about tackling the challenge and enjoying the experience (although my competitive streak might disagree!). After I finished the race I walked around parts of the course and there were a lot of smiling faces - there was a great atmosphere amongst the crowds and the competitors were, in large, enjoying the challenge.
In a way, setting off with the hard-nuts at the front was a little demoralising, as I had to watch a fair amount of people go past me, while not overtaking many people myself. Maybe the mental battle against my fitness would have been easier fought if I'd have started at the back and spent more time overtaking people!
It wasn't long before the terrain started to turn a bit hellish, as we were directed up into the hills and woodland. The ground started to get a little muddy and slippery in places, but not enough to really clog up the feet. The soil varied over the course but it always had quite a sandy texture to it, so didn't really thicken up or get sticky. It's funny, I've done these events all over the country and the mud is different at every location - sometimes it's slippery clay, sometimes a dark gloopy porridge. I'm sure if I'd have paid attention in geography class, I'd be able to tell you something enlightening about sub-soil... but I didn't... I'm finding it fascinating all the same though! (If there are any Geographers out there who would like to do a guest post about the types of soils in different regions in the UK please drop firstname.lastname@example.org a mail!).
The environment varied massively over the course. Within the space of a few minutes you'd find yourself going up steep hillsides, then a tight single track through woodland, then a wide open grassy plain, then splashing through shin-high puddles. It certainly kept you on your toes and didn't get boring!
Annoyingly I'd forgotten to bring my watch along. I mostly use time in races to estimate distance, so I found it quite hard to guess how much of the course was remaining, so I tried to use landmarks as estimations. After interviewing the organisers, I was prepared for a couple of landmarks - a hilly section and The Bog of Doom. I had already seen the Bog not far from the start/finish line, so I thought I'd be on the home straight as soon as I hit that (that's what I thought anyway).
|If the Devil made hills, he'd make Hell Runner hills|
In terms of the hills, the course slalomed up and down a hill quite early on, so I was relieved to get that out of the way. However it wasn't long before the next slalom... In fact, over the course of the run you were never very far from the next hill climb! My legs turned more and more to jelly as the hills kept coming. They were getting steeper and steeper - at times you practically had to climb to the top on all fours! Going down the hills was hair raising - I tried to let gravity do its work and let my legs run down at their own pace, but there were a few very hairy moments where I found myself losing control - it started to feel like my body was moving downhill a lot faster than my legs could keep up with! Thankfully I managed to regain composure each time before ploughing into tree and ditches!
|The Bog of Doom awaits...|
Finally, after a crazy decent back down to the carpark area, the entrance to the Bog of Doom was in sight - a long section of boggy lake to wade through. As I approached, flames burst from the gateway, then there was a deafening explosion to the side. This was definitely an assault on the senses! Not being one to stand on ceremony, I leapt into the freezing bog and submerged myself to waist height. My lungs impulsively contracted as I let out a "FFFUUUUU...." (just about managing to spare the baying children on the banks from my gutter-mouth). In the summer, these kinds of water features were actually a nice refreshing break from running, but the autumn had turned them into a crippling obstacle.
|I know the feeling luv...|
As I waded through the freezing water there were more explosions and I was surrounded by smoke - it was a little disorientating, but to be honest it was nice to have something to take my mind off how my privates were on the verge of imploding.
|Some people were evil enough to just laugh off the affects of the bog...|
I dragged myself out the other side of the bog and tried to initiate my numb legs back into a run. They really didn't want to respond - again, it felt like they were being left behind by my body. On the plus side, I was surely near the end, the start/finish village was practically in sight. Nope, I was wrong, there were several more hellish twists left in this course - it turns out the end wasn't even close!
|Me trying to get my legs working after the Bog of Doom|
We detoured up into some more woodland, and after five minutes of so I started to hear some music in the distance - I thought it must be the finish line. As it got louder and louder I was sure it had to be the end and I started to pick up my pace so that I used up everything in the tank. I met a marshal who pointed me down a steep drop to the right. As I looked down, there was a large lake area at the base of a steep-walled valley. Crowds had gathered all along the far side and watched the runners scramble up and down the sides of the valley and wade through the lake. As I made my first pass across the lake and climbed the hill on the other side, the support was excellent. The crowds cheered and one man was nice enough to point out that there was a guy a few yards behind that was gaining on me.... nice to know but there wasn't really much I could do about it, I was spent!
|Dropping down to the lake crossing|
After more lake crossing and valley wall climbing, we left the buzzing music-filled area and ran into a surprisingly deserted sandy plain. It dawned on me again that there was more to do before reaching the finish line! Sand underfoot was an evil twist for my tired, numb legs. Every footstep was a struggle as my feet sunk into the sand. I love off-road running, but at that moment I would have given anything for the resistance of tarmac!
I found myself grouped with a couple of other runner, who were also struggling with the energy-sapping terrain. I looked up to the brow of the next sand-dune and, like an oasis, there was an inflatable gateway. Surely THAT was the finish line... I increased my pace again, but something didn't feel right about it. The only sign of life was a marshal stood to the side, there were no crowds. I was fooled again! I asked the marshal how long there was to go... his response was "only about a mile".... ONLY! I'd got this all wrong - I had paced myself for a much shorter course, my bearings were completely off.
After working our way through some more sand we ran through some more woodland and eventually burst out onto a familiar gravel track. I was certain now that I was on the home straight and confidently lengthened my stride and enjoyed the relative bounce that the gravel put into my running. Sure enough, crowds started to line the course and I turned the corner into one final small lake crossing just before the finish line.
Paul (the race director) was there to great everyone as they crossed the line and it was great to finally meet the devil himself. I puffed and panted some nonsense for a while before stumbling into the recovery tent, where I was handed a series of goodies. It was definitely one of the best packs I've had, including a recovery drink, water, really nice medal, training shirt and several other sports nutrition samples from their sponsors.
I went back for a chat with Paul. I'd had a lot of fun on the course and it was a lot tougher than I expected (which was actually a pleasant surprise). Paul explained that a lot of the hills were new and that it was their toughest incarnation of the course yet. That doesn't surprise me! He was saying that although a lot of people would find it hard on the day, it would be something they'd love a lot more once the dust had settled. With events like this, it's the stories in the bar afterwards that make them so amazing. You'll look back and remember the freezing bog and energy sapping sands like mental war-wounds. They are memories that make the whole experience worthwhile! And you'll be able to look back and say that you crossed the finish line at Hell Runner!
Hell Runner makes use of some very exciting terrain at Longmoor Camp. The course is extremely well planned and organised. There aren't any man-mad obstacles, but I didn't miss them at all. The natural obstacles were challenging and exciting enough. In a crowded obstacle course market, Hell Runner definitely has its place. Obstacle course racers can consider this an easy option at their peril!
If you'd like to know more about Hell Down South and the other Brooks Hell Runner events go to: www.hellrunner.co.uk
I'll be posting more photos from the event on Facebook, so keep an eye on that. I've also got a couple more events this weekend, so there are plenty more race reports to come! Like Mudstacle on Facebook or follow @Mudstacle on Twitter to stay in the loop.